In talking about plot in part one and two, we mentioned the need to face and overcome obstacles to build reader interest, and need for these obstacles to be logical.
For our example, let’s not start with a preconceived need–like joining meeting a friend at the top of a mountain. Rather, instead, in the opening lets create a need that will require our protagonist, Protag, to climb the mountain, just to show another way of doing it. This, BTW, is one way to handle thrillers, take an ordinary person and put them in an extraordinary situation and see how s/he plays the hand. So, remembering we said about hopping into a Humvee and plowing straight to the top is bo-oringgg, lets begin.
Objective: climbing Plot-line Mountain.
Starting point: the base of the mountain.
Our hero, Protag, is out for a Sunday drive in the wilderness. He crosses a bridge on his planed drive around Plot-line mountain, but jams on the brakes as the road is blocked by logs. Then an explosion blows away the bridge behind. And bullets start zinging off the Humvee’s downhill fenders. See folks, a casual afternoon has turned into what’s called, in Cliché City, a situation. Protag has a sudden need to get the heck out of there by the only way open to him, over the mountain, and maybe needs a restroom as well.
Protag slams the Humvee into gear, yanks the wheel and mashes the pedal, spraying gravel as he bounds over rocks and humps and bumps, hell-bent on a yo-yo for the summit. A few hundred feet up, out of rifle range, he finds an old logging road and eases along it with birds singing in filigree sunlight. All is right with the world. Oh yawn.
Then Protag barrels around a curve and over a crest hiding a deep wash, and the Humvee soars like a lead eagle. It mashes nose-down into the gulch, and Protag, neglecting to wear a seatbelt, no doubt earning him a traffic citation, crashes against the windshield. The birds now sing inside his head, and the Humvee rolls downhill. Backwards. Toward a sheer drop-off. And the brakes no longer work. Oh, and the door won’t open. On either side. Protag hops in the back and by punching and kicking and cursing and–when all else fails–praying, breaks open the tailgate. He dives out pancake-flat into a bed of thorns. The Humvee scrunches over him and plunges off the cliff. And we listen with Protag, dear writers, and wait, wait, and wait. A crunch of metal meeting stone, followed by an explosion, disturbs the idyllic day. A black cloud rides on an updraft to waft away in a gentle breeze. Ssssson-ofagun. Is this too obvious?
Protag climbs back up to the logging road on the other side of the gulch. Now the grade is easy again. A lazy zephyr drys the sweat on his brow, a chipmunk complains at his passage, and the scent of pine needles fills his nostrils. The sun is warm on his back. The reader’s eyes start to glaze.
When Protag checks out the view from a rock overlook, tiny puffs blossom at his feet, sprouting sprays of stone shards. Say what? A rifle crack echos in the mountain air. And again. Holy excrement–or whatever–someone is shooting at him. Protag dives for cover and lands in a rocky wash, bashing his knee. Oh darn. And breaking his elbow. Oh pshaw. And loose stones send him sliding down an escalator to hell. Egad gazooks.
Weeeell, you get the picture. All of this up and down is to get our readers to buy deeper and deeper into Protag’s future, to grit their teeth in determination to hang with him till journey’s end. Compare this to a Humvee driving up to the top in third gear.
Also notice that these setbacks are not equal in intensity. Or shouldn’t be. At the outset there’s a blast of guns and he quickly and easily gets out of danger. When he plows into the gulch and starts rolling for the drop off into oblivion, things become rather more stimulating. But once he is out of vehicle, the climb up the gulch to the trail is mainly one of exertion rather than danger. And finally when he is on the overlook and someone starts shooting at him, he easily dives out of the way, but the significance is that whoever shot at him at the bottom, is still around ready to take him out. Then landing on the loose stones and slipping down the hill presents another level of anxiety, Protag against the mountain.
If the intensity of our obstacles is always the same, it becomes obvious and therefore intrusive, and anything intrusive yanks us out of the story. So we need to plan our obstacles so they vary in intensity. It should be pointed out that I’ve used a lot of exaggeration–oh really–just to give the example. For instance, if your initial incident has too many things piling up again Protag, it becomes obvious. And I think it’s worth repeating, when any technique becomes obvious it is intrusive, and intrusive yanks the reader out of the story.
One other thing we need to notice. Occasionally things happen in our hero’s favor. Riding along on the easy road, and then walking on it after wrecking the Humvee. We could have had one bad thing happen after another, the ride up toward the trail and falling into the gulch and climbing up to an outcropping and getting shot at. I have read books like this, piling one obstacle relentlessly upon another, but I believe this brings about reader fatigue. It gets to be so much that it doesn’t jive with what we would expect from real world events. Remember what we just said about a device becoming obvious. So we want to bring some relief into it and have things sometimes go easy for our hero, or at lest appear so.
The mountain is a metaphor for all plots. It is not the story, but an example of how to build our plot line before or as we write our story. As we mentioned earlier, Protag must continually face downturns and overcome them, growing stronger each time, mentally if not physically, till at last he’s ready for the big finale, the mountain-top climax we have targeted from the beginning.
But before that, in BookMarc #12, we have one more thing to do before the denouement, the final outcome.
How’s this for leaving you in suspense?
Peter E. Abresch – BookMarc© February 13, 1998. Updated August 23, 2014